Middle East

Syrian rebels bring fight to Damascus

A handout picture released by SANA shows people inspecting the site of an explosion in Mezzeh.

BEIRUT: Violence in Syria Monday claimed more than 200 lives according to pro-regime and rebel sources, with armed clashes and mayhem centering increasingly on the capital, Damascus.

Opponents of the regime of President Bashar Assad said that a suicide bombing in a village in the central province of Hama killed 50 government troops and loyalist militiamen, while stray gunfire hit an Israeli military vehicle in the Golan Heights, causing no casualties.

Al-Arabiya television said that the rebels have embarked on their latest bid to unify their ranks, by organizing themselves into five specific battlefronts with responsibility for the northern, eastern, western, southern and central parts of the country.

In Damascus, a car bomb tore through the neighborhood of Mezzeh, killing 11 people and wounding dozens. The state-run news agency SANA said that “terrorists” set off the blast in the residential area of Mezzeh 86, a pro-regime stronghold. Television footage showed bloodied people in a street as firefighters worked to put out the blaze.

However, the rebel Revolutionary Military Council of Damascus issued a statement saying the explosion targeted a Military Intelligence post, and went off when a bus carrying army and security personnel arrived at the square.

Meanwhile, Palestinian supporters and opponents of Syria’s regime got swept up in heavy fighting in a southern district of Damascus, while rival rebel groups clashed over control of a border crossing with Turkey, activists said.

The fighting in the capital was some of the worst since July, when rebels took over several neighborhoods in a striking attack. Within days, a regime counterattack pushed the rebels out of Damascus and recaptured the areas. Shortly after those battles, rebels moved on Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, and it has become a major front in the war since then.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighting in Damascus was concentrated in the neighborhood of Tadamon and the outskirts of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. Damascus-based activist Abu Qais al-Shami told the Associated Press via Skype that the fighting began Sunday night and went on continuously into Monday.

The Observatory and al-Shami said regime forces are backed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command led by Ahmad Jibril, a staunch supporter of Assad.

“Tadamon is being struck with shells, rockets and heavy machine-gun fire,” Shami said. “People are fleeing the area toward safer areas inside the Yarmouk camp.”

A Syrian opposition figure, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the events, said Palestinian fighters who are opposed to Assad were fighting alongside the rebels in Damascus.

The Observatory had no immediate word on casualties from Monday’s fighting but said eight people were killed in Yarmouk Sunday night when several mortar rounds landed in the camp.

The popular committees in Yarmouk Camp, which are led by the PFLP-GC and represent camp residents and Palestinian factions, said the camp was attacked by “terrorist gangs” who claim to include anti-government Palestinians.

“The mercenaries who claim to have Palestinians among them” tried to infiltrate the camp Sunday but were repulsed by the popular committees, the statement said. When the rebel attack failed, they fired mortars that killed and wounded several people, it added.

“Those who are shelling the camp are terrorists” who want to displace the Palestinians again, PFLP-GC spokesman Anwar Raja told the AP in Damascus.

In the occupied Golan Heights, an Israeli military vehicle was hit by gunfire from Syria, the Israeli army said.

“A military vehicle travelling in the Golan was hit by gunfire from Syria. Apparently they were stray bullets, and there were no injuries” to those aboard the vehicle, a military spokesman told AFP.

“The incident occurred in the central sector of the Golan Heights near the demarcation line,” he said, adding that the Israeli army took no action in response.

In the central province of Hama, a suicide attacker detonated his car in the village of Ziyara causing two deaths, state-run news agency SANA said. It added that the blasts occurred outside a government development agency, while adding that one ton of explosives were used in the attack. The Britain-based Observatory said the suicide attacker targeted an army checkpoint and killed at least 50 soldiers and pro-regime gunmen.

The Observatory also reported that an air raid on the northern town of Harem killed at least 20 rebels. It said a rebel commander was seriously wounded in the raid.

The activist network of Local Coordination Committees said at least 159 were killed in violence throughout the country, without including the victims of the suicide bomb attack in Hama.

The LCCs said 72 people were killed in Idlib, including 32 alone in the village of Kafranbel.

In northern Syria, an opposition figure also said there were clashes between rival rebel groups for control of the Bab al-Salameh border crossing point with Turkey that has been in the hands of rebels since July. The opposition figure spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The opposition figure said that Sunday’s fighting was between the Northern Storm Brigade and the Amr bin al-Aas brigade, which has a large number of Muslim hard-liners.

A Turkish government official based in the border town of Kilis confirmed two Syrian rebel groups were “engaged in a power struggle,” fighting each other for the control of the Bab al-Salameh border crossing. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with government rules, said however, that Turkish officials were still trying to determine who the two groups were.

Former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected, met with Turkey’s foreign minister behind closed doors in Ankara to discuss the Syrian opposition meeting in Qatar and efforts to restructure the opposition, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said. The two also discussed the more than 110,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 06, 2012, on page 1.




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